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Tuesday, August 4, 2020

High Court Backs Tribal Designation for Wide Swath of Oklahoma Land

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a decision that reclassifies a large swath of eastern Oklahoma as land belonging to Native Americans driven from their ancestral home during the Trail of Tears, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday that a Seminole man sentenced …
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Image credit: Muscogee (Creek) Nation via Smithsonian Institution

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a decision that reclassifies a large swath of eastern Oklahoma as land belonging to Native Americans driven from their ancestral home during the Trail of Tears, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Tuesday that a Seminole man sentenced to 500 years in prison for rape and sodomy should have been tried in federal court.

Jimcy McGirt, turning 72 in October, contends that the crimes of which he was convicted in 1997 occurred on Muscogee or Creek Nation land. McGirt himself is a member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and applied in 2018 for post-conviction relief based on the successful appeal of Patrick Dwayne Murphy, a Creek member whose death-row conviction was vacated after the 10th Circuit held that Congress never explicitly erased the Creek Nation’s boundaries when Oklahoma was granted statehood.

Murphy’s case had been pending before the Supreme Court after the justices ordered last year that it be reargued. They affirmed for Murphy on Tuesday after handing down the ruling in McGirt — a case that the justices heard via livestream teleconferences in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The federal government promised the Creek a reservation in perpetuity,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “Over time, Congress has diminished that reservation. It has sometimes restricted and other times expanded the Tribe’s authority. But Congress has never withdrawn the promised reservation. As a result, many of the arguments before us today follow a sadly familiar pattern. Yes, promises were made, but the price of keeping them has become too great, so now we should just cast a blind eye. We reject that thinking. If Congress wishes to withdraw its promises, it must say so. Unlawful acts, performed long enough and with sufficient vigor, are never enough to amend the law. To hold otherwise would be to elevate the most brazen and longstanding injustices over the law, both rewarding wrong and failing those in the right.”

Gorsuch participated in McGirt’s case though he recused himself from Murphy’s case because he had participated in the 10th Circuit decision. 

McGirt is represented by Ian Gershengorn with the firm Jenner & Block, and Riyaz Kanji, an attorney representing the Creek Nation, participated in arguments as a friend of the court.


This story is developing …

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